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18th Jan 2019

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MEPs to grill youngest ever EU commissioner

  • Mariya Gabriel has eight years of experience as an MEP, but has never held an executive office (Photo: European Parliament)

Members of the European Parliament will grill their former colleague, Mariya Gabriel, on Tuesday (20 June) to see if she is fit for the job of European commissioner for digital economy and society.

Centre-right Gabriel was nominated last month by the government of Bulgaria to become a member of Jean-Claude Juncker's EU commission team, after budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva left at the end of 2016 to join the World Bank.

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However, she will not inherit Georgieva's heavy portfolio of budget and human resources.

Instead, Gabriel will take charge of the area of digital economy and society, which was left behind by German commissioner Guenther Oettinger when he took Georgieva's portfolio. It had temporarily been given to Andrus Ansip, the vice-president for the digital single market.

At age 38, Gabriel will become the youngest European commissioner in history.

While she has eight years of experience as an MEP, Gabriel has never held an executive office. She is also inexperienced on the issue of digital affairs.

From secretary to MEP in seven months

The Bulgarian has degrees in political science and philology, and started her career as an assistant researcher at the Institute for Political Studies in Bordeaux, France.

At the end of 2008, Gabriel became parliamentary secretary to MEPs of the Bulgarian centre-right GERB party, part of the largest political group in the EU parliament - the European People's Party (EPP). Just seven months later, she was elected to the EU parliament.

She then became a member of the committee on agriculture, and the one on petitions. The young Bulgarian also became a substitute member of the civil liberties committee, and led several electoral observer missions to places such as Nigeria, Sudan, and Sierra Leone.

In 2014, she was re-elected as an MEP, and joined the civil liberties committee as a full member.

A look at some recent key parliamentary votes on digital files showed that MEP Gabriel mostly followed the party line.

In 2015, for example, she supported the compromise text that secured the end of roaming charges, but simultaneously laid down rules on the neutrality of the internet that critics at the time feared contained loopholes.

Her lack of experience with digital affairs will no doubt be a matter for the questions posed by the MEPs, who will hold a three-hour confirmation hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

In written answers Gabriel provided to the EU parliament, the commissioner-designate did not showcase any grandiose new ideas on the future of the EU's digital economy and society.

Instead, she mostly referred to plans and promises already made by the current EU commission.

With only two years left for Juncker's mandate, much of the legislative work on the digital single market strategy has already been carried out. It is now for Gabriel to push the parliament and member states to adopt the legislative proposals.

Working with other commissioners

Juncker's mission letter to Gabriel, which was in many instances a word-for-word copy of the one given to Oettinger in November 2014, indicated that she would be given more guidance by her colleagues than Oettinger.

Juncker asked Gabriel, just as he did Oettinger, to work on big data, the cloud, and the Internet of Things. However, the commission president added that Gabriel should work with the commissioner for Research, Science, and Innovation.

He did the same for several other assignments, telling Gabriel to work with specific commissioners, whereas Juncker had not asked Oettinger to do that.

Juncker still wants Gabriel to make a “plan to make the EU a leader in cyber security preparedness and trustworthy information and communication technologies”.

But where Oettinger was asked to come up with that plan with his colleague, vice-president Ansip, Gabriel is expected to draft the plan alongside the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and the commissioner for the Security Union, Julian King.

Hate speech

In her written answers to parliament, Gabriel promised that, as commissioner, she will propose “further measures to promote proactive steps by online platforms and social media” to combat hate speech.

However, she remained vague about the future of the EU's telecom forum, Berec.

The EU commission wants to give the forum more powers and make it a full-fledged agency, but both parliament and national governments seem sceptical on the subject.

Gabriel's fellow EPP member, Krisjanis Karins, told EUobserver earlier this year that he was opposed to the commission's idea.

In her written answers, Gabriel did not state a preference over an agency or not, saying instead she will “work together with the co-legislators to find the best possible solution”.

Digital skills: Netscape

She also said she wants to promote digital skills, which are needed to ensure Europe's “shift to digital technology”.

Perhaps Gabriel would like to increase her own e-skills too.

She listed in her curriculum vitae on her personal website that her computer skills are: “Microsoft Office tools (Word, Excel, Powerpoint)" and "Internet (Explorer, Firefox, Netscape)”, which is not particularly impressive for a 38-year-old.

Netscape Navigator, like Explorer and Firefox, is a web browser that was popular in the 1990s, but was discontinued ten years ago.

Supercomputing lag could prompt EU brain drain

“We are not in the top-10 or the top-five in the world when it comes to high-performance computing but we have the potential to do it," says EU digital commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

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